Democrats fear they are running out of time on Biden agenda
The long hot summer is shrinking fast for Democrats eyeing a series of big legislative wins this year.
Democrats are hoping to move a number of President Biden’s chief policy priorities — including an enormous infrastructure package, new voting rights protections and an overhaul of federal policing practices — before next year, when the campaign season heats up and legislative prospects are sure to cool down.
Complicating their efforts are lingering internal battles over both substance and strategy, which have heightened tensions between the House and the Senate as well as liberals and centrists at a time when party leaders need virtual unanimity in both chambers to realize their ambitious goals.
As the negotiations limp forward, Democratic leaders are increasingly watching the clock, wary that Republicans are simply trying to drag things out so that Biden’s agenda is sunk in the political muck of next year’s midterm fights. Some are beginning to sound alarms that their window of opportunity is closing fast.
“We need to get to these issues sooner rather than later,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday. “Whatever negotiations are going on in the Senate — or frankly, between the House and the Senate discussions [with] our committee chairs — we need to wrap those up. We need to come to issue.”
Hoyer was referring specifically to Biden’s massive infrastructure plan, which has hit a brick wall of Republican resistance in the Senate, where a group of 21 senators are now scrambling for a bipartisan deal. But the list of Biden priorities hardly stops there, and Hoyer ticked off a list of other “critical” items, including sweeping election reforms and the police reform legislation drafted in response to the murder of George Floyd last year.
“There’s a lot of work, and that’s just a smattering of some of the important work that remains to be done,” he said, insisting that Democratic leaders can still shoehorn those items into the dwindling 2021 calendar.
“I think we will have the time, and if not, we will make the time,” Hoyer said. “The Speaker and I are both going to be very focused on making sure that we get as much of the president’s proposal done as is possible.”
The summer’s congressional calendar hints at the Democrats’ looming temporal challenges.
The House and Senate are in session for only four out of the next six weeks before the long August recess, due to the July Fourth break. To put it another way: Starting Wednesday, House lawmakers will be in Washington for only 16 legislative days during that summer period, including fly-in days when votes don’t begin until the evening.
And the House won’t return from its summer recess until Sept. 20, after Labor Day and the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That would leave Congress with less than two weeks to avert a government shutdown on Oct. 1, likely by passing a short-term, stopgap funding measure known as a continuing resolution, or CR.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and others on the left are growing anxious as the bipartisan Senate talks on infrastructure and other issues drag on. They’re pressing Biden and the White House to cut off talks with Republicans and use the budget reconciliation process to pass a $6 trillion package with Democratic votes only. In addition to infrastructure, the sweeping plan, outlined by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), could include climate change provisions, an expansion of Medicare and immigration reform.
“We want to move. I think Sen. Sanders is moving on the budget bill, and progressives here, we want to move on the reconciliation bill,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who served as co-chair of Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, said in an interview just off the House floor.
“I just care about the end result,” Khanna said, “which is we need a bold bill that has climate and taxes the very wealthy who are not paying enough taxes.”
To be sure, the bottleneck is much more pronounced in the Senate than in the House, where Democrats have already passed their favored infrastructure, election and police reform bills; appropriators are gearing up to approve all their 2022 funding bills before August; and budget leaders are vowing to move swiftly to lay the groundwork for a reconciliation package.
“We’re committed to having a budget resolution done by the August recess,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the Budget Committee.
The playing field is much different in the Senate, where Democratic leaders need 60 votes to pass most legislation and moderate Democrats, behind Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), are threatening to sink anything that lacks Republican support.
Democrats won a moral victory Tuesday when Senate leaders struck a deal with Manchin on a scaled back voting rights bill. The agreement ensured Democratic unanimity behind the legislation, empowering their campaign message that Republicans are complicit in the state-level erosion of voting protections around the country. But the tally also fell well short of the 60 supporters needed to defeat a GOP filibuster, immediately triggering new calls from liberals for Senate Democrats to scrap the filibuster altogether — an idea Manchin has rejected outright.
The White House had set May 25 — the first anniversary of Floyd’s killing at the hands of police — as the deadline for Democratic and Republican negotiators to strike a bipartisan deal on police reform legislation. But that deadline came and went as talks stalled over whether individual police officers should be protected from lawsuits.
Now, it appears the trio of top negotiators, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), will miss a second, arbitrary end-of-June deadline, even as they continue to trade proposals and inch closer to a deal.
“We’re making progress. I’m very, very hopeful,” Booker said Tuesday. “I’m not dwelling on that negative outcome. I’m dwelling on getting actually something accomplished.”
Clinging to the slimmest margins in both chambers, Democrats understand that any victory hinges on their ability to stay together.
“I think our caucus understands that essentially we’re all Joe Manchin. With the margins we have, everybody has the ability to tank whatever we’re trying to do,” said Yarmuth.
“Unity is not only our strength,” he added, “it is the only chance we have.”